Starring John David Washington, Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branagh, Dimple Kapadia, Himesh Patel, Martin Donovan, Michael Caine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Clémence Poésy
Tedious. Solemn. Convoluted.
Lady in a Lab Coat: Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.
“Don’t try to understand it. Feel it,” a lady in a lab coat tells our protagonist, simply referred to as Protagonist (Washington), for the whole of the film. Protagonist appears to accept this there and then-though it’s hard to determine what he’s thinking, if he’s thinking, at any point. I could not accept it. I don’t want to not understand. I don’t enjoy being lost, in general, but if I am to be lost, I’d prefer a vibrant setting, a character or two to care about, and a sense of humor. Not this gray oblivion devoid of humor that touts intelligence and sophistication at the expense of humor, entertainment, and emotion. In thinking about it, it’s strange what the lady in a lab coat says to Protagonist. The line is clearly meant as a clue to the viewer on how to experience Tenet and in this sense, it does its job, but within the context of the film, does Protagonist ever “feel” anything? Don’t try to understand it? I don’t even understand who she is.
Any film made by Christopher Nolan bears the weight of exceptional expectations. Nolan is quite possibly the most popular filmmaker working today and, perhaps more impressively, he’s also almost universally admired by his peers. His popularity was built chiefly on his take on the superhero genre with Batman and The Dark Knight saga. Since the final film in that trilogy though, The Dark Knight Rises, his films have grown increasingly austere and opaque. Those two words combine to mean pretentious in my eyes. I was not a fan of Interstellar (the second half meandered its way to the goofiest ending I’ve seen in years), I was apathetic towards Dunkirk (admittedly, I’ve seen this once and I’m willing to see it again before I mark my opinion in stone), and now, Tenet, Nolan’s worst film; an interminable barrage of noise and poor sound design, unintelligible, obscure dialogue, superficial characters, wrapped around a “high-concept” central conceit that I don’t give one damn about.
The story follows Protagonist, hired by some unknown figure to…(I don’t know what this film’s about and you probably don’t want me to tell you anyways.) Let’s go broad strokes instead. John David Washington is the good guy. Kenneth Branagh is the bad guy. The end of the world is at stake. Time can be manipulated. Robert Pattinson is in this movie. He’s helping the good guys. Elizabeth Debicki is married to the bad guy, but reluctantly helps the good guys. Will subtitles help? Do I want to give Tenet a third try on DVD where I’ll at least know what’s being said? Half of the dialogue is spoken through thick accents or obscured by masks which has become a trademark for Nolan and not one of his better ones.
In order for there to be suspense, the audience needs to be in on what’s going on. Alfred Hitchcock famously explained (explained it best, in my opinion), saying, ““There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” There’s no anticipation in this film because we’re never given a solid enough picture of what is happening. We’re meant to be overwhelmed. Everything, from the bombastic sound design to the narrative structure, conspires to overwhelm us. This is not a spy film like some critics claim it is. Cinematic espionage is not knowing who to trust but knowing that good and bad will reveal itself by the end. Tenet is knowing who’s good from the start, Protagonist, but not knowing who he is or why he does anything. The good guys are emotionless suits with no backstory whatsoever and no clear motivation.
Perhaps the large-canvas, awfully convoluted plot is simply a means to an end; an excuse for large-scale spectacle and masterfully crafted action sequences. I’d never accuse Nolan of being a hack. He’s a technician. Many of the action set-pieces are incredible. Tenet is consistently beautiful and well-acted in the rare moments when acting is called for (aside from Debicki, the cast is mostly called on to look good in a suit and spout pseudo-clever dialogue). However, as I said in a different review (Highlander 2, I believe, another nonsensical sci-fi flick), when I can’t follow the plot, I have no sense of what a scene’s purpose is in the grand scheme. Then, I can only hope to enjoy each scene independent of context. There are a number of scenes in Tenet in which I was able to do this, but it’s hard to do for 2 and a half hours. “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” No lady in a lab coat. I felt nothing, and in the time spent between seeing Tenet and writing this review, I didn’t think about the film once.
-Walter Tyrone Howard-